Studio: The Criterion Collection
October 11, 2021
It may well be impossible to prepare well for the descent into the decadence and depravity that is Luchino Visconti. the damned. As a neophyte parent of the director (having seen only Rocco and his brothers), that was certainly the case here.
To set the scene: it’s the dawn of Nazism, or soon after. Germany is not yet under Hitler’s boot, but it is a known entity that is getting stronger day by day. His impending reign is seen not as a hypothesis but as an inevitable eventuality. As such, the aristocratic von Essenbeck family fits in the lineage. The patriarch, Joachim (Albrecht Schoenhals), reluctantly on the night of his birthday celebration, as he sees the Nazis as junk, but also recognizes that his family’s clearest path is to welcome Hitler’s thugs clenched teeth.
Joachim is assassinated that night with Herbert (Umberto Orsini), the anti-Nazi vice president who was ousted earlier in the evening, being framed.
This opening sequence almost suggests that despite Joachim’s violent death, the film will be a power play series as the remaining family members position themselves to take over. And although it is certainly is this, the damned doesn’t get trapped in its aristocratic brilliance and there are indications that it will.
Joachim’s daughter-in-law – and widow of his only son – Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) is, for much of the film, portrayed as ruthless and motivated. It is she, and not Herbert, who is responsible for the murder of Joachim alongside her lover and future husband Friedrich (Dirk Bogarde), who is particularly gentle. Friedrich is also coached by SS officer Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) on how best to navigate the family ranks on the way to power. But it’s Martin (Helmut Berger), Sophie’s son, who pushes the boundaries of where the film can and will go. Martin is introduced to a Marlene Dietrich-inspired drag where he serenades his visibly uncomfortable grandfather. Without a costume, Martin is effeminate and lispy to promote the idea that he is stereotypically a homosexual.
But this is not really the case. It is implied during a game of hide and seek with his young nieces that he assaults one of them, which is developed when it is much more directly shown that he is abusing a young girl. Jewish woman who lives next to her girlfriend. Martin is not gay and should not be seen as an offensive shortcut, but rather as someone whose appetites know no bounds, especially as upright society begins to crumble. He is also allowed by his various protectors who look away or make sure he has a safe passage to pursue his nefarious deviance.
That is, at least partially, the point. Martin is the most blatantly depraved member of the family, but it’s only because Sophie and Friedrich seek power at the expense of everyone around them that their crimes seem hushed up in comparison even if they are inordinately excessive. different way. They represent the venality of evil, to play with a term coined by political theorist Hannah Arendt.
As the Nazi Party rises in power, it chews on people and rejects them when they are no longer useful or are seen to be too ambitious or powerful in themselves. The great loss of the von Essenbeck family is their unbridled and unhindered ambition. They line up with Aschenbach, but he’s a rabid wolf with a stoic exterior. The fate of Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff) as one of the SA officers gunned down during Night of the Long Knives – portrayed as a homosexual orgy before the guns arrived – should serve as a denunciation for Sophie and Friedrich, but they foolishly believe they’re protected.
the damned is not afraid of sex or violence and this is perfectly illustrated in the Night of the Long Knives sequence which begins with a celebration that gradually turns into a gay sex party before buckets of bright red blood are poured into the as they are exterminated. On the one hand, SA is eradicated because it may have become too strong. On the other hand, it is proof that Hitler will assassinate those who do not conform to his binary ideal.
Much of the film is an exploration of how power corrupts and disintegrates. And while the depravity doesn’t go as far as Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom, they serve as interesting bookends on where this kind of unchecked power – especially via fascist totalitarianism – can ultimately lead.
The Criterion Edition is an example of what they do best. Cinema specialist DA Miller helps place the film in its historical context with his superb accompanying essay, “Damned if you Do it”. Additionally, there are archival interviews with Visconti and several of the film’s actors and a new interview with academic Stefano Albertini who explores and helps contextualize sexual politics within the film.
the damned is a compelling and often entertaining melodrama that is also extremely dark, uplifting, and revolting. Epic in stature, Visconti does not hold back in his daring vision of the corruptibility of power and ambition.